Jon Gruden has a deep appreciation for NFL history, and his love affair with the Oakland Coliseum and the lunatics in the “Black Hole” is no secret, so his emotions will be on full display Sunday as he tries to send the Raiders out in style.
The Raiders’ last game in Oakland — we did this last year, but this time it’s for real — will be like a Super Bowl for Gruden.
The league saddled the Raiders with a brutal travel schedule this season yet did do them one favor by sending the Jacksonville Jaguars to Oakland for the grand finale. The Jaguars, riding a five-game losing streak and off a pathetic 45-10 loss to the Chargers, appear to have quit. Even the magic of Gardner Minshew was nonexistent last week.
Of course, the Raiders, who have slipped to 6-7 after three straight blowout losses, are limping to the finish line before leaving for Las Vegas.
There were several historic moments at the Coliseum and countless Raiders legends (including one of my all-time favorites, Ken “Snake” Stabler) graced the grass field, but most of the highlights happened decades ago. The stadium is a sewage pit, and it’s time to move on. Still, it will be the best setting for any NFL game this week.
Bill Belichick said this of the Black Hole, “Intense fans. It’s like Halloween every Sunday there. It’s a great environment.”
The Raiders do not have to be great to beat the Jaguars. Derek Carr needs to snap out of his slump, especially if he wants to be Gruden’s quarterback next season, and a beat-up defense must be better. Gruden will get his team to play with great emotion, and rookie running back Josh Jacobs is showing old-school toughness by saying he plans to play despite a fractured shoulder.
It’s not easy to lay 6½ points with the Raiders, but I’ll put a black patch over my right eye and do it as a pick in this column. It’s probably wiser to play the Raiders simply to win on a six-point teaser or moneyline parlay.
Four more picks for Week 15:
* REDSKINS (plus-6) over Eagles:
Interim coach Bill Callahan has made the Redskins more competitive partly by improving the team’s scouting techniques and making practices tougher. The offensive line is performing better and rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who’s a long way from being a quality starter, is showing at least a hint of progress. Washington was 0-5 when Jay Gruden was fired and is 3-5 under Callahan. The Redskins have won two of their past three and covered three in a row with the defense allowing 21 points or fewer in each game.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson celebrated an overtime victory over the Giants on Monday as if it were a playoff game. It kept Philadelphia’s playoff hopes alive, but that’s about it. The Giants went in with an eight-game losing streak and a cold, old Eli Manning at quarterback. I still believe in Carson Wentz, who’s trying to carry a beat-up team to the finish line. Wide receivers have been dropping like flies — Alshon Jeffery is now done for the season — and right tackle Lane Johnson is out this week. Philadelphia’s major edge in this matchup is Wentz over Haskins. Still, the Eagles, who lost at Miami as 10-point favorites two weeks ago, are an injury-riddled team with all sorts of problems. I’ll take the ugly ‘dog that no one wants to adopt.
* Broncos (plus-10) over CHIEFS:
This is not a good spot for the Chiefs off their win at New England and with Patrick Mahomes playing with a bruised passing hand. Since starting 0-4 — and losing two games they should have won — the Broncos are 5-4 SU and 7-2 ATS. A week ago, Denver jumped all over Houston and led 38-3. The Texans were also coming off a win over the Patriots. The Broncos are 2-0 behind rookie Drew Lock, who has completed 72.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s way too soon to say Lock is the real deal, but so far, so good. Vic Fangio’s defense is holding its ground, and Von Miller is expected to play, so Denver should continue to be dangerous ‘dog.
* Rams (-1.5) over COWBOYS:
It does not require a team of MIT researchers to see why the favorite has flipped in this game after Dallas opened -2. The Cowboys are 3-7 in their past 10 games — with victories over the Eagles, Giants and Lions — and have not defeated a team that currently has a winning record. The distractions and dysfunction in Dallas get worse each week as it becomes clear coach Jason Garrett is doomed. The Cowboys’ most important remaining game is at Philadelphia in Week 16.
The Dallas run defense was ripped for 151 yards by the Bears, who seemed close to benching quarterback Mitchell Trubisky until the Cowboys made him resemble Aaron Rodgers. Sean McVay is rediscovering running back Todd Gurley at the right time. Gurley has totaled 42 carries for 174 yards and two touchdowns in the Rams’ past two wins, and Jared Goff is hitting on more big pass plays behind an improved offensive line. It’s risky to give up line value and take the popular public side, but McVay and the Rams are starting to roll while the Cowboys are collapsing around Garrett.
* STEELERS (-1) over Bills:
Josh Allen opened eyes on Thanksgiving, when he led the Bills to a breakthrough win at Dallas. But the defense he faced that day was a turkey, and the one he will face in Pittsburgh is much tougher. The Steelers are 7-1 in their past eight games while allowing 16 points per game and 17 points or fewer in six of the eight. Pittsburgh ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed (209.8 per game) and second in interceptions (18), validating the risky September trade of a 2020 first-round pick for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Allen is still struggling with his passing accuracy from the pocket. His completion percentage (59.8) ranks 32nd in the league. The Steelers rank No. 1 in sacks (48), so they have the ability to pressure Allen and force him into rushed throws and mistakes.
The Bills were 6½-point underdogs to the Cowboys, and that obviously was a bad number, but this 1-point line makes the price on the Steelers cheap by comparison. No, Devlin “Duck” Hodges is not Dak Prescott, but Hodges is giving Pittsburgh a chance to win each week and its defense is doing the rest.
Last week: 1-4 against the spread
Westgate SuperContest note: My record of 42-27-1 ranks in the top 100. I typically switch a pick or two each week based on contest lines and changing opinions and my contest strategy has worked out better (4-1 last week, for example) than the picks in this column. My contest card this week: Titans -3, Broncos plus-9, Steelers -2.5, Falcons plus-10.5, Rams -1.